L: Black bear hair left behind on a ring of elevated barbed wire. A scented lure draws bears to brush against the wires, leaving behind hair samples. Biology Laboratory Coordinator Thea Kristensen and her students extract DNA from the skin follicles attached to the hair, and then genotype the DNA to determine which bear is which and to match samples across locations and time. Data from the study will help inform state policies on bear management.
R: SURF researcher Eleanor Hollers ’21 collects hair samples from one of the 122 bear hair corrals set up across the state this summer as part of the MassBears project, which is estimating the population size and distribution of black bears in Massachusetts. The project is led by Kristensen, in collaboration with Kathy Zeller and Steve DeStefano from UMass Amherst and Dave Wattles from MassWildlife.
If you live in Massachusetts, you know this already: The bears are coming back.
“In the mid-1800s, bears were pretty much extirpated from Massachusetts by hunting and deforestation,” says Eleanor Hollers ’21. Now, more than 150 years later, hunting is regulated, and pockets of dense forest have returned, restoring the bears’ habitat. In areas just beyond cities and suburbs, bear populations can thrive thanks to humans’ garbage cans and backyard bird feeders.
Thea Kristensen, biology laboratory coordinator, leads the team of students who are helping conduct the state’s first bear population study since 1993. In collaboration with MassWildlife, the Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and UMass Amherst, Kristensen and her team are estimating the population size of the state’s black bears and determining how they are distributed east and west of the Connecticut River.
To do this, they used a noninvasive survey technique: hair corrals. A hair corral consists of two parallel strands of barbed wire wrapped low around a small circle of trees. At the center of each circle, researchers suspended a lure doused with various liquid scents appealing to bears. (Judie’s Restaurant in Amherst donated cooking oil for this purpose.) As the bears passed through the wires to investigate, they left behind more than 1,870 hair samples for Kristensen’s team to collect for lab analysis.
Aspiring veterinarian Hollers relished the research assignment that gave her ample time outdoors—plus one actual bear encounter. “I’m a crazy animal lover,” she says. “If vet school doesn’t work out, scientific fieldwork would be a good alternative.”